Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Modern Romance, part four

Four years ago, I wrote a series of posts about communing with a mountain in Juneau called Thunder Mountain during the winter of 2009-2010. You can read them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Rain patters the windshield, accumulating in a conga line of drops dancing joyfully as the wipers chase them off stage. I watch this with old eyes, a strip of exposed film that was long ago shot, and forgotten, and unintentionally spooled through the camera again. The double exposure confuses me. I am driving on memory auto-pilot, but where am I going? "Oh yes, this is Egan Drive, and soon there's going to be a turn. What was the name of the road? Glacier Road? Mendenhall Loop? And then there was another turn, on a neighborhood street. What made me think I'd remember the exact turn? It's been four years since I've been here. But, four years, how is that possible? Where have I been?" The rain continues to fall as it always falls, at least in the view of my old eyes.

I park the car and launch a familiar ritual — strapping snowshoes haphazardly to a pack, pulling up the hood of my waterproof shell, putting mittens on my hands and microspikes over my shoes. Standing up straight, I see a familiar profile coyly lurking behind satin curtains of mist.

 Hello, Thunder Mountain.

 My old eyes scan the forest floor for hints of a trail. An inch of new snow covers the mulch and moss, effortlessly erasing any sign of the path. There are pieces I remember — the blueberry bush mud shoot, the deadfall staircase, the root wall. But I have to admit to myself that these distinct fragments are just that; they do not form a whole, and they won't guide me through the maze of moss-coated spruce and skeletal devil's club. My mind flips through the double-exposed film, exposing it again. There's the creek that the rotten wood boards spanned in the summer time. There's the big overturned stump whose image always enters my thoughts when I ride my bike through redwood forests near my home in California. California? Is that where I've been? Did all of that really happen?

 I begin the mittens-on-roots climb up the mountainside when I locate tracks. Human tracks, three sets of them, so far only pointed in one direction, and at least one set distinctly belongs to a person wearing XtraTufs. Who around here wears rubber boots to hike up this particular mountain in decidedly crappy weather on a Monday? A grin spreads across my face. "Bjorn," I think. Bjorn is an old Juneau friend who introduced the basic mountaineering concepts that enabled me to begin visiting these steep mountains in the wintertime. Thanks to his simple tips and encouragement, I found new courage to pick my way up an icy slope, trudge through thigh-deep drifts, chip ax steps up a snow wall, and face the mountains in their quietest, harshest, most raw state of beauty. I could see them with new eyes, and fall in love in a whole new way.

 After another 800 vertical feet in something like a quarter mile, I encounter the makers of the tracks I was so gratefully following, making their return trip. Sure enough, it was Bjorn and his brothers, and I so expected the tracks to belong to him that the serendipitous nature of the encounter didn't even register. Bjorn and I actually met on a mountain, in much the same way, and I can barely remember ever seeing him off the mountains. We embrace, exchange quick catch-ups, and he warns me about fresh wolf tracks near the trail. And that's it — just a short reunion, but it gives me pause. "It's kind of strange," I think, "to just bump into Geoff on a mountain on Friday, and then Bjorn today." In both cases, their groups were the only other people I saw out there, in four-plus hours on the trail. People flicker in and out of our lives so unceremoniously, like blurred figures burned into double-exposed film. They look like ghosts now, but there was a time when we stood side-by-side at focal points, sharp moments in our lives when all of the noise of the present converged, and we could see the lines to our futures, and everything changed.

 After another 700 vertical feet, my cell phone rings. Beat is calling on his satellite phone from a shelter cabin between Koyuk and Elim, two weather-ravaged villages on the Bering Sea Coast, about 150 miles from Nome. His voice sounds more ragged every day. It breaks my heart, every time, even though I can hear the happiness in his words, too. I don't cope well with thoughts of his suffering, even while I relate to the intense dynamic of it all, the soaring highs and soul-rending lows of life on the Trail. My own life is far away now — in Juneau, in the recent past — and I struggle back to the surface to take in everything he has to say. His current conditions report is falling snow, and wind, and snowshoeing through deep and sticky powder at 31 degrees. He asks me how my day is going. "I'm out for a snowshoe hike," I say. "It's snowing, and windy, and yeah, I'm pretty sure it's even 31 degrees. I'm in the trees now, but once I get up on the ridge, the wind is probably going to be really bad. I will go there, and I will think of you."

 The ridge juts skyward at almost impossibly steep grades, covered knee-deep in wet powder, and my progress slows to almost a standstill. One step forward nets two sliding back, scrambling on all fours like a goat trying to climb a water slide. I have no intention of going all the way to the top of the mountain, as the final pitch is a twenty-foot vertical headwall that Bjorn, in the past, has described as "avalanchey" in new snow events. But I figured I could climb to a hundred or so feet below the headwall, down in the last stand of scraggly trees on the ridge, before turning around. Still, this effort is ridiculous. The headwind is ripping through cracks between hastily applied goggles and a buff. Occasional gusts drive brief whiteout blizzards so intense that snow packs into the arm openings of my coat. The surface has almost zero traction — heavy powder sitting on top of an icy crust layer. I wouldn't make much slower forward progress if I started crawling backward. But I think of Beat, and his struggle, every day in storms for so many miles, so much worse than this. Solidarity is as good a reason to climb a mountain as any.

 Thunder Mountain, I already know, does not care about love and solidarity. Thunder Mountain does not care that four years have passed since I walked its slopes, bearing my soul to the wind and to the silence. Thunder Mountain does not care that it was right here, on this ridge, that I found the courage and made the decision to quit my job, leave this town, and strike out into the unknown without even knowing what I was looking for. Thunder Mountain does not care that I since went on to move away from this state I so love, met an amazing person who has helped me explore a much wider range of the world, formed a new passion for traveling long distances on foot, and found the freedom to pursue something that has been a core part of my identity since I first took a red crayon to lined paper and organized known letters into still-unknown words. Thunder Mountain does not care that an infinitely small amount of time has still managed to accumulate a lifetime's worth of incredible experiences, and burned them onto the filmstrip of my memories with bright and bold colors that shine through on the grayest of days. I think about Beat and feel a murmur in my heart as cold blood sinks to my toes. Four years ago I convinced myself I could love only mountains and live with the ghosts. But now I know that I was wrong. I cannot live with ghosts alone. Beat is far away and here on Thunder Mountain I feel only the icy sting of loneliness, because Thunder Mountain does not care.


Time is on fast-forward now, moving too quickly, swirling through the snow before it's whisked into the gray expanse. I see a set of big canine tracks running parallel to my own, and remember that Bjorn and his brothers did not have a dog with them. Once I return to the relative safety of the forest, I turn on my iPod to chip away at the unsettling quiet. After shuffling through several songs, but not enough to make it seem anything but serendipitous, I find "Modern Romance" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In a rare showing of Shuffle patience, I listen to all the minutes of static silence after the song, which arrives at the hidden track:

"Baby, I'm afraid of a lot of things 
But I ain't scared of loving you. 
And baby I know you're afraid of a lot of things 
But don't be scared of love."